“Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country…”
— William Jennings Bryan (1860 to 1925)
“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot.”
— Joni Mitchell “Big Yellow Taxi” 1970
In the case of Alrie Middlebrook, Joni Mitchell’s song could go, “She built paradise and tore down a parking lot.” That happened at 76 Race Street starting in the year 2000. She gradually converted a concrete parking lot into a living, loving piece of land in the heart of San Jose. Breaking up concrete, using the urbanite for paving and planters, creating a unique native garden, nursery, aquaponics farm, and most important a center for learning. The Middlebrook Center grew healthy food, educated young people of all ages, from preschool to university, to the inquisitive elderly, and became an oasis in an area being overtaken by the digital world called Silicon Valley. Now they want to tear down this paradise, this oasis, and make it again into a parking lot.
Years from now, when our young people are old and our old people are gone, we will be sitting around a proverbial campfire and a grandchild, not yet born today, will ask his grandparent: What happened here? And the answer to that question will be either we made a wonderful choice and saved this critical remnant of the natural world, or… we blew it and left you a digital desert.
Nothing less than our future and the future of our children is at stake and it is at stake right here, on the hallowed grounds of 76 Race Street.
If we make the wrong choice, and eliminate this pocket of sanity, then we are lost. Our children will become more disconnected from the real world and more deluded by the digital world where the screen is the interface with everything, and no longer do children have to speak to each other, feel the soft earth beneath their feet, hear the sounds of birds and wind and ocean. No longer will they have an opportunity to grow food, feel soil between their fingers, eat a tomato off of a vine. Mud, sand, granite will have lost their meaning. Even rain will become irrelevant because we chose the fake world and abandoned the real world.
Or, or… instead on this place, so close to the center of technology, some wise folk, young and old, choose to preserve the land, educate our young, give them the opportunity, the privilege of interfacing with more than just a pixilated screen. Allow them to pick an ear of corn, to plant a seed, to hear the song of a bird, to see a friend and hear their voice as it comes out of their mouth, not how it comes across some electronic device. Allow them to feel calluses on their palms, breathe smoke from a natural fire in their lungs, shiver to a cold sleet on their skins, because this is real and, while it is uncomfortable in the moment, it nourishes the soul for eternity.
We will soon have machines that think for us, robots that work for us, medicines that keep us alive past our awareness to enjoy it. The only problem is we will have sacrificed meaning, place and purpose. We will have sacrificed humanity and become another machine.
We have a chance, getting slimmer by the moment, of reversing things. That chance for us in our lifetime starts here. You want your child to one day sit by a stream, in the shade of redwoods, annoyed by squirrels, and filled with the aroma of sage fragrant plants. We can say, this is where it started. We started the great and good job of reconnecting our children to the real world and putting technology in its place as only an aid to the good life, a life of meaningful work, art, nature and connection.